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old playbook

Florida’s New Driver’s License Rule Is Blatant Trans Voter Suppression

Forcing people to out themselves at the polls is a surefire way to deter trans voters.

A hand holds an "I Voted" sticker.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A voter shows off their “I Voted” sticker after casting their ballot on November 8, 2022, in Miami.

Quietly and behind the scenes last month, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, or FLHSMV, issued a memo indicating that it will no longer honor Floridians’ requests to amend the gender marker on their driver’s licenses. “Permitting an individual to alter his or her license to reflect an internal sense of gender role or identity, which is neither immutable nor objectively verifiable, undermines the purpose of an identification record,” Robert Kynoch, deputy executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, wrote in the memo, reciting rhetoric now often used to justify anti-trans laws. The memo closed with what could be read as a threat: “Misrepresenting one’s gender, understood as sex, on a driver license constitutes fraud [under state law] and subjects an offender to criminal and civil penalties.” Or, said more directly, as in a statement that FLHSMV made to several media outlets after news of the memo hit the press: “You do not get to play identity politics with your driver license.”

This news is alarming for several reasons. Until now, the state had allowed residents to amend the gender marker on their licenses and state identification cards. The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, run by a political appointee of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is attempting to throw out that policy in this memo. The state legislature is also currently considering something similar: House Bill 1639, which Equality Florida, the statewide LGBTQ rights group, calls the Trans Erasure Bill, includes provisions that redefine “sex” and “gender” in the law in such a way that trans Floridians would be required to list the sex they were assigned at birth on their driver’s licenses. “On the one hand, you have this policy that’s saying, You can no longer amend, and on the other hand, you have this policy that’s saying, When you’re applying for documents they have to have your sex assigned at birth,” explained Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel at ACLU Florida. “So you’re creating a situation where there’s an intent to erase trans Floridians from public life.”

The next stop for the Florida bill is a vote by the full state House of Representatives; meanwhile, advocates are still trying to assess the fallout from the FLDHSV memo. “It feels like this was just a way to make sure that in the interim, while people are waiting to see what happens in the legislature, they can’t go ahead and amend their driver’s license or ID to reflect their gender identity,” said Simone Chriss, director of the Transgender Rights Initiative at Southern Legal Counsel. Around 60,000 trans Floridians have amended the gender marker on their driver’s licenses, said Carlos Guillermo Smith, senior policy adviser at Equality Florida and a former state representative. The idea that updating a gender marker constitutes “misrepresenting” your gender, he added, “it’s a stunning accusation, but it’s also intended to create fear in the transgender community and discourage folks from updating their identification.”

The news is even more alarming in context: Hard on the heels of anti-trans bills in Florida restricting everything from public bathroom use to access to medical care to school curricula, this new policy impeding access to official identity documents is now limiting or even precluding trans people’s participation in civic life. To deny trans people accurate state identification, given the state’s restrictive voting laws, elected officials and their agency appointees are chipping away at the right to vote, making it harder, too, for trans people to vote the people targeting them out of office.

Across the country, trans voters have already been confronting barriers when voting due to state voter identification rules. An estimated 203,700 trans voters faced possible disenfranchisement across the United States in 2022 because their identity documents do not list their correct name and/or gender, according to an analysis of state voter ID laws by the Williams Institute; it also found that 30,300 trans Floridians who were eligible to vote did not have accurate identity documents. In the context of voter suppression, Florida’s new state identification policy takes on additional dimension: Some trans voters may be prohibited from renewing their driver’s license with an accurate gender marker. Some may decide not to vote rather than have to show their inaccurate license to polling place workers. For a trans person who doesn’t have accurate identification, their safety can be at risk.

“It’s forcing them to out themselves,” said Smith of the restrictions on amending licenses. This could in turn subject them to anti-trans harassment and violence, “which is already on the rise,” Smith noted. What’s happening now to trans people in Florida with their driver’s licenses just exacerbates a problem that trans voters and voting rights advocates have identified already. “Trans people don’t know if that polling place is going to be safe,” Kit Malone, advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union Indiana, told me ahead of the 2020 general election. “We don’t know if any place is going to be safe.”

According to an analysis from the Movement Advancement Project, Florida is an outlier now, one of two states that bans people from updating the gender marker on their driver’s license. Compare this to the 22 states, along with Washington, D.C., that permit residents to have an M, F, or X on their license and that don’t require the license holder to provide certification of their gender from a medical provider or similar professional. For those who live in a state where a certification from a licensed medical professional or court order is required to change a name or gender marker on identification, the time and money involved can put updated ID out of reach for many trans people. In the 2022 U.S. Trans Survey, polling more than 90,000 trans and nonbinary people, most of the respondents lacked fully accurate identity documents. Of those who hold at least one form of official ID, 59 percent said that “none of their IDs listed the gender they wanted” and 48 percent said that “none listed the name they wanted.” As a result of having to present an ID with a name or gender “that did not match their presentation,” the survey found, 22 percent “reported being verbally harassed, assaulted, asked to leave a location, or denied services.”

Lawmakers in 10 states (including Florida) introduced bills in 2024 restricting how sex and gender are defined. Like many recent anti-trans laws across the nation, laws limiting identity documents have resulted in uncertainty around how they will be enforced, which has, on its own, exercised a chilling effect. In Kansas, a conflict between the state attorney general and the governor over interpretations of a 2023 anti-trans law have caused confusion and concern about identity documents and the right to vote. As the ban was fought out in court, it remained in effect, while an election was looming, and trans voters didn’t know if their IDs would be rejected by poll workers. ACLU Kansas issued a letter addressed to county election officials, stating that though the state required voter ID, it did not require a gender marker or for a gender marker to “match” the voter. “While some transgender voters in Kansas may provide an identification document with a gender marker that is different than how they physically express their gender, this is no reason to deny the voter a ballot or to require casting of a provisional ballot,” the letter read. “Of course, all voters—whether cisgender or transgender—have the right to change their appearance; minor photo discrepancies such as these are no reason to deny a voter a ballot or to require casting of a provisional ballot.” It’s unclear whether this policy was honored by poll workers. But if we’ve learned anything from the history of voter suppression policies in this country, it’s that lack of clarity about the policy is, itself, enough to discourage some voters.

Following the new Florida ID changes, Chriss at Southern Legal Counsel said she already had clients call her and say they were scared to drive to work or to pick up their kids. “Voting is another aspect of that, where I think people will be afraid to show up to the polls and have their license scrutinized, and who knows?” They are already weighing the risks. “I’m sure a lot of people think that they’re going to be reported to the FLHSMV for fraud if their gender marker matches their gender identity and not their sex assigned at birth.” Chriss shared a memo analyzing the changes and what they mean; as of now, she told me, the FLHSMV memo should not invalidate already-amended licenses. But the fear provoked by the FLHSMV’s memo and its likely baseless threats of penalties was intentional, she said. “It’s a scare tactic. It’s to make people afraid to do whatever it is.” Cameron Driggers, founder and executive director of Youth Action Fund, thinks the identity document policies feel so threatening even amid all the other anti-trans laws in part because of what they evoke historically: “It really does resemble the beginnings of a state-sponsored erasure of a certain group or state-sponsored violence against the group.”

Part of the fear is that even if the state does not enforce vague penalties, others will take enforcement into their own hands. “We understand that is the point, is to create that fear and confusion around what to do,” Smith at Equality Florida told me. “We understand when the attorneys come around and rightfully say, Your updated driver license is still OK, that’s still valid.… Yes. But, you know, who’s to say that a right-wing cop that was watching Fox News last night, who sees a headline that says, DeSantis is stopping trans people from getting updated driver’s licenses, who’s to say that that cop is not going to pull someone over tomorrow and harass someone and abuse their authority and unlawfully detain them, even though they are not allowed to do so?” That’s part of the enforcement too—to create an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity that enables bad actors to try to enforce a policy themselves. If poll workers might try that, what would stop police?

The implications of these ID changes, after all, are playing out in the context of Florida’s existing voter suppression, including sending law enforcement officers to pursue alleged voter fraud. “DeSantis has already put together a thoroughly dystopian ‘election police’ force that he has used to terrorize African American voters since the 2020 election,” observed Chrissy Stroop, a writer on the Christian right and anti-LGBTQ politics, shortly after the memo was publicized. She wondered if trans voters could be subject to a version of those same repressive tactics. “Florida’s anti-trans policies aren’t just devastating to individuals and families, but are also part and parcel of the state’s approach to voter suppression,” Stroop elaborated by email. “Transgender Floridians deserve to have all the information on the probable risk entailed in voting so they can make their own decisions with their eyes open. And the broader American public needs to understand the stakes and the circumstances.”

There are practical ways voters can push back. Advocates recommended that trans residents of Florida obtain an updated U.S. passport, which does not require a physician’s certification and allows passport holders to request the gender markers M, F, or X. (Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, led by Representative Maxwell Frost, has urged the federal government to step in and block Florida’s amended license bans, on the grounds that they are in conflict with federal law.) A U.S. passport is also considered a primary identity document in Florida, meaning it can serve as identification when voting. “If they do that now, they can at least hold onto a valid legal identification that reflects their lived identity regardless of what Florida does,” said Smith with Equality Florida.

At the polls, advocates recommended voting with another person, as a potential witness and support. “It is absolutely illegal for a poll worker to turn away an eligible voter because of that voter’s gender, absolutely illegal,” emphasized Kara Gross at ACLU Florida. “You cannot be denied the right to vote because a poll worker thinks you don’t look like the gender marker on your ID.” Should a poll worker challenge a voter or prevent them from voting, Chriss said, “ask the poll worker or whoever it might be to put in writing, why you’re being denied the ability to exercise your fundamental right.” Advocates all said that voters can reach out to Southern Legal Counsel, ACLU Florida, and Equality Florida to report any harassment or intimidation.

Anti-trans laws can be implemented in a chaotic, confusing fashion and almost always are fought out in court—as the anti-trans identity document law is now in Kansas, a look ahead for what’s to come for Florida. Yet anti-trans lawmakers reject that they target trans people at all. Just getting accurate information about what these anti-trans ID changes in Florida mean is especially challenging when they are announced informally in memos, without any clear explanation of how to comply or how they will be enforced. Much like Florida’s other recent anti-LGBTQ laws, said Chriss, “the intent is to scare people and to intentionally make it confusing so they don’t know their rights.” That’s the common element of attacks on civil rights and attempts at voter intimidation and suppression: throwing up obstacles, potentially driving people away, creating an environment of uncertainty and fear. The antidemocratic way that such anti-trans actions are put into place by the state further erodes what we’re told is the democratic process. Right now, there’s little room at all between attacks on trans rights and attacks on democracy.